Suburban reality distortion field


As my son said to me: “well, you could play tag there.”

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The first sign of suburban decline


Close your eyes. Imagine a scene from the Dukes of Hazzard. No – the television series. Imagine what Cooter‘s house must have looked like. Single pane windows. Rough grass alongside a gravel driveway. Likely a big block Chev up on blocks in the yard.

And a cord of firewood on the porch.

Which is why I found it surprising that someone in our quiet, boring, traditional and cookie-cutter design suburban neighbourhood made this startling choice:

A quarter cord of wood, stacked on the porch.

What happened to the matching Algonquin chairs, the planter full of seasonal flowers, the standard decorations that shout “my owner knows how to stage their property to maintain appearances and suburban propriety”?

[tags] Dukes of Hazzard, home staging, firewood, suburbs [/tags]

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Suburban lofts – you read it here second


On Sunday, the NYT Magazine featured “The Suburban Loft” in its Year in Ideas issue.

It’s an appealing idea, with plenty of the design quirks and individual touches that can break the monotony of a suburban and exurban development.

Which is why I blogged about it in May 2004. Karrie Jacobs wrote about the design in Metropolis magazine first, and you read it here second.

Technorati: home design suburban+loftsuburbs design

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James Lipton: reaching out to suburban kids


James Lipton (Inside the Actor’s Studio) is now appearing in ads for DC shoes, alongside extreme sports stars like Dave Mirra, Danny Way and Travis Pastrana.

The NYT notes that Lipton thought the ads may be one way to broaden the demographic appeal of Inside the Actor’s Studio. I think that pony’s left the barn: tewntysomething viewers of Saturday Night Live have known of Lipton’s interview style and speaking idiosyncracies for years.

    “I felt like I was in a parallel universe when I was sitting there and he was talking to me,” [skater Rob] Dyrdek said in a telephone interview. “It was like ‘when worlds collide,’ almost.”

    Mr. Dyrdek said that “of course” he knew who Mr. Lipton was before filming the spots, but “it was like more Will Ferrell was James Lipton to me.” (NYT)

Has Lipton lost control of his identity among younger television viewers? SNL may have raised his profile with twentysomethings, but did it benefit Inside the Actor’s Studio? Is this ad campaign going to drive more viewers to BRAVO and the show, or will Lipton simply become a camp humour icon like Bob Uecker? (He’s likely reached that level already – but hasn’t cashed in with the beer ad money)

BTW: the ads are great – and online – but are available only on a stupid flash page.

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Location – tell me my current obsession


Lately, I’ve been zoning in on books that discuss location – whether through wayfinding, past experience in urban and wild settings, the development of innate navigational skills, or novel treatements of life in particular locations. Here’s a sampling from my recent bookshelf:

Where am I?Colin Ellard

” … Two things seem to be universal in wayfaring cultures like the Inuit and the Australian Aborigines. One of them is that they’ve honed this exquisite eye for detail that we don’t have. The other thing that these cultures do is use narrative and story. The best example of all is these song lines in Aborigines – what they’re doing is they are making an explicit connection between their creation, the creation of everything, and the shape and size of the landscape. They’re using song lines as a kind of navigational aid, but at the same time there’s this spiritual connection to place …” (Globe and Mail)

Retrofitting SuburbiaEllen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson

” … But we found, over and over in interviews, people being really sad when their mall had died. “I had my prom in that mall,” they’d say. They attribute the mall with a lot of bonding, a lot of time growing up—they really loved their malls. When it died, the first reaction was: Let’s find a developer to fix our mall. Most people didn’t want a downtown-type structure, they just wanted their mall back. It takes a paradigm shift, like the example of Belmar (see pictures at right).

Belmar was built five miles outside of Denver, and originally had no desire to be urban at all. But by the time the mall died, the surrounding suburban community of Lakewood, Colo., had become the fourth-largest municipality in the state. They had put in a library and a city hall, but it was set up like a strip mall. They eventually found a developer for the property who said “I won’t redevelop the mall, but I’ll give you a town center.” It took a while, but they bought in, completel …” (Popular Mechanics)

StripmallingJon Paul Fiorentino

” … Jonny lives and works in a strip mall in Suburban Winnipeg. For some people, this would be exciting and fulfilling enough …”

Personal Space: the behavioral basis of designRobert Sommer

Before “getting up in your grill,” there was “personal space.” This is the original work, which drawn from initial insight found at a psychiatric hospital in Saskatchewan.

Hollywood in the Neighborhood – Kathryn H. Fuller-Seeley, ed

How Hollywood and the new breed of popular entertainment – movies – arrived in the heartland, and the effect this had on the community.

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Storage units: A moment in transition


One observation about storage units: they can appear anywhere. Alongside rail yards, behind motels, cleverly disguised as yet another building in a suburban office park, wedged in the strangest shaped lots.

This Sunday’s NYT Magazine discusses the link between self-storage units and the culture of consumption.

” … The truth is, there is no typical storage customer. As facilities crowded into the landscape, storage units became incubators for small businesses and artisans; warehouses for pharmaceutical reps, eBay merchants or landscapers. One unit at Statewide, the Doparts told me, functions as a kind of regional distribution center for Little Debbie cakes. I met a few homeless renters, who sometimes choose to pay to put a roof over their possessions instead of their own heads (living in units is not allowed); I met working-class renters using units as closets and safe-deposit boxes while serially couch-surfing or living in multifamily homes. I heard of a martial-arts instructor in Hawaii who trained clients in his unit, and a group of husbands in New England who watch sports in one on weekends. More than one operator told me they have a unit where, every morning, the renter goes in dressed as a man and comes out as a woman …”

in the NYT Magazine, The Self-Storage Self

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You had me at meat


I’ve got five national grocery chains – with massive square footage – within a two kilometre radius in my suburban neighbourhood. And I have some overwhelming and unexplained fascination with store planograms, integrated marketing campaigns and promotional programs.

We must be coming on BBQ season, because the meat promos are being served up across all the media channels. Last week, it was a feature on the new budget cuts of beef from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

” … Tom Mylan, a butcher who breaks down whole carcasses at Marlow & Daughters in Brooklyn, says the cattlemen are not inventing anything.

“The old Italians and French butchers have been doing this forever,” he said. The surprise, he said, is that it took the big producers this long to figure out how to process and market off-cuts.

“The difference in a good name is worth $3 or $4 a pound,” he said …”

And there’s the rub.* There’s big money to be made in meat, especially if you differentiate according to quality, cuts, point of origin and whether they’re “raised right.”

galensmeatstick1I can’t believe, though, how sweetly the campaign for the President’s Choice meat program is written. “Restaurant quality at an affordable price,” it seems. These over-the-top but still mouth-watering quotes are from the news release:

  • “… in-store fresh meat program with a meaty makeover …”
  • ” … we’ve taken the meat shopping experience to the next level …”
  • “…The solution: President’s Choice Tender and Tasty beef …”
  • “…Take a steak-ation … with PC Certified Angus Beef”

This is classic marketing hyerbole, mixed with a taste of menu grammar magic. (See this Slate article on the language of menus).

And look at Galen! Just the right balance of meat and vegetables!

* see what I did there? Pun, baby!

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The bourgeoisie attends the art faire


It has to be a tough day, sitting in a folding lawn chair in a public square, a dozen or your artworks displayed on easels or pedestals around you.

Which is why I feel for the forty-odd artists packing the Place Broglie in Strasbourg this Sunday.

Because the people walking this square have distinctly bourgeois tastes, and they’re letting it show.

Now, I am the last person to claim authority, taste or style when it comes to art.

But even I can tell that most of the people here are drawn by the physical qualities of some pieces of art, not their inspiration, their execution or presentation.

What do I mean? They’re shopping for art that will fill a space and impress their friends.

That means a big crowd around the lady who applies photoshop filters to her photos of lone wolves on the horizon, or a fishing shack on a beach. That her photos are mounted in a relatively popular 1:6 proportion doesn’t hurt either.

Ditto for the graffiti artist actually creating near-photo portraits right here on the sidewalk.

“Oh this? The artists also did the “screw authority” tag under the A70 autoroute. He’s authentic in his passion.”

Or the “abstract” painter who layers textures and paint mediums in distinctly angular patterns – a style first popularized by Robin Williams in Moscow on the Hudson

Strangely, the Keith Haring rip-offs aren’t moving, and the startlingly good pop art isn’t drawing a crowd at all.

And forget anything that shows a touch of anger or anguish. The lady with the angry nude watercolours is having an exceptionally cold reception.

Thankfully, the guy trying to move rough charcoal sketches of naked ladies isn’t getting much slack either.

It is depressing, though, to see artists producing more and more of their work in tryptchs or series of small postcard-sized images, to suit the suburban sensibilities of sidewalk art browsers.

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The bungaloids are taking over the suburbs


O.G.S Crawford seems to be an example of the eccentric English expert, someone who achieves relative success in an esoteric or overlooked field, but carries along with them a number of personality or character faults that often serve to distance them from the rest of conventional society.

Significantly, Crawford was the first to realize that aircraft could be used to survey tracts land for signs and evidence of prehistoric settlements. He also seems to have rubbed people the wrong way and made some poor choices in ideology along the way as well.

A new biography, Bloody Old Britain, presents a comprehensive look at his life, and has been reviewed extensively by the British press.

Eccentrics often produce the best biographies – and the best book reviews – because they are apt to channel their emotion and their obsessions into witty and observant statements, like:

“bungaloid eruptions” – the suburban homes that began to dot and then overwhelm the English landscape in the years after World War Two.

As reviewer Luke Slattery describes Crawford, “He was not so much a whingeing Pom as a splenetic Basil Fawlty, animated by a generalised anger, set at a sharp angle to the world.”

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I might disagree with you on graffiti


I saw a brand new van driving down a nearby thoroughfare* today, freshly painted and wrapped with graphics for a local graffiti removal firm.** This is Ottawa. We do not have a quantifiable graffiti problem, no matter what resident associations, politicians or the police would argue.***

Not to sound too Marxist, but the creation of a private graffiti removal firm can be interpreted as catering to the petty prejudices and simplistic tastes of the suburban bourgeoisie.

Considered and creative graffiti can make a statement about the economic, political or social situation in any urban area – even boring, quiet Ottawa.

It certainly makes a statement about the level of engagement between community activists, artists and residents. A knee jerk opposition to graffiti can belie a knee jerk preference for order and restraint – to the expense of debate and criticism.

NolaRising, a blog championing New Orleans’ recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina through the use of public art, pointed to a very creative and constructive application of graffiti: the appearance of several Banksy pieces in the Louisiana city in the weeks leading up to the third anniversary of Katrina’s landfall.

The blog has a gallery of Banksy pieces in New Orleans, as does flickr user Anthonyturducken and jonnodotcom.

Now THAT’s graffiti that demonstrates a sympathy and empathy for the city and its citizens.


*what’s the difference between a thoroughfare and a street? One is full of stupid people that drive too fast. And fast food restaurants. The other has no restaurants.

**can you appreciate the irony that a graffiti removal company feels the need to cover every inch of their van with graphics in order to make an impact on a society besieged by commercial messages every second of every day?

**although some property owners certainly do have a right to complain about poor graffiti and vandalism on their property.

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Foodland Ontario Has Possessed My Grocer


My local grocer seems to have a good thing going. Surrounded by national and regional chains in a very competitive suburban market, Ross’ Independent Grocer brands himself as the locally engaged grocer, with clear links to the community.

At the same time, the “Independent Grocer” franchise is clearly a part of the much larger Loblaws/Weston group of brands – and that gives owner Ken Ross access to the much loved President’s Choice range of products, as well as bulk purchasing discounts.

Ross emphasizes his connection to the community in local papers, working with the business improvement area, through the weekly flyers, and by voicing the promotional spots broadcast over the store PA system.

It really shouldn’t have surprised me – Ross’ Independent Grocers won a 2007 Retailer Award from Foodland Ontario, the provincial government public relations campaign charged with getting us locals to eat something other than Dominican bananas and California grapes.

It’s clear that, this summer, part of the Independent Grocer franchise marketing package is a “grown close to home” campaign, tied to the peak of the Ontario growing season. That’s one of the reasons I picked up canteloupes, watermelon, peaches, blueberries and tomatoes earlier this afternoon. Fresh, nice smelling, reasonably priced and, admittedly, grown close to home.

This fits well with the contemporary Foodland Ontario campaign, which is attempting to resurrect the “good things groooowwww in Ontarrrriooooo” jingle first advertised in the early 80s.

Still, I was surprised when, at the end of an in-store promo announcement, I heard Ken Ross signing the very same jingle and fairly well, all things considered.

For an idea of what I heard, the current Foodland Ontario television ad is pasted below.

And beside it is “Peaches” by Presidents of the United States – because I like it, and it’s tangentially relevant.

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To fail, you have to try first


Sure. Garage bands are mocked. Almost everyone has been in a band, humped equipment for a friend’s band, or paid a cover to hear a sh*tty band from your high school.

But you really don’t have the right to criticize. Because if you don’t throw your hat in the ring and take some risks, you will never fail .. but you will never hit the ball out of the park, neither.

Which is why I like For Those Who Tried To Rock – a blog chronicling:

“… band to have been formed by teens with that perfect mixture of big dreams and questionable talent in suburban garages, high school music rooms, and college dorms across America….”

It’s entry after entry of young hopes and ambition, slogging it out in basements, garages and clubs.

[tags] garage band, failed youth, hopes and dreams, Marshall amps, van down by the river [/tags]

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The four rules of blog content


There are four rules that dominate the quantity and quality of your blog content:

1: when in a rut, drive readership and SEO love by creating a numbered list;
2: the more disappointing your actual paying job, the more you will write and post. This does not mean your blog will be any better – just busier;
3: the closer the relationship between the subject of your blog and a day job you love, the better the content; and,
4: the busier your day job becomes, the less time and inclination you will find to blog.

I had an executive coach who told me that being an executive was a lot like spinning plates: you had to make sure your passel of plates continued spinning at the end of their poles, and that none hit the floor.

At the moment, I am filling two executive positions.

My office is running the danger of looking like a suburban banquet hall after a Greek wedding.

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Teach your children well and dress them well … as well


Say no to strangers people, and remember that the policeman is your friend. A voyage back to 1965 provides a glimpse into the idealized life of a boy and girl in middle school – and how they navigate the multiple threats of dark back alleys, policemen that burst out of Spanish-themed bars at mid-day (7:24 in), old men in tweed proffering free puppies, and suburban moms in station wagons volunteering a free ride to the school.

Because I’m chronic that way, I noticed that the young boy had been dressed in a Fred Perry tennis shirt. Feel free to mock (me, not them. I used to drive 350 km to buy those shirts).

Remarkably absent? Any form of electronic device at all. No television, no radio, certainly no computer, PSP or wireless device. All those kids had was a playground and each other. Pathetic!

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In which another layer is peeled back


As I made the transition into grown-up, collecting a full-time job, a marriage and a suburban home along the way, part of my youth remained sealed away – in a box of carefully collected and reluctantly ignored vinyl.

Limited editions, special imports, extremely overpriced rarities: they’re all there down in the basement. The cheap turntable of my teen years broke down long ago, to be abandoned for the trash pickers on Bathurst Street. The mix tapes lasted a little longer, but were eventually crushed under the weight of feet, coolers and seats on numerous road trips.

The result? Bands like the Merton Parkas, the Lambrettas, Selecter, and Makin’ Time receded in time, and in my memory.

One record prompted an unusual absence – The Truth’s Playground (on their MySpace) – despite its relative lack of sophistication. It was one of three cassettes I brought with me on an 18 hour trip between Toronto and New Delhi, and was played over and over in my Sony Walkman (the silver one, barely larger than the cassette itself. Don’t you remember? Sony was the Apple of the early 80s, with a new and cooler version of the Walkman every season!) as I sat on the tarmac at Heathrow during an interminable flight delay. I guess the album was burned into my sub-conscious.

Which is why I was surprised – and pleased – to find a glut of Truth-based material online in the past few months. YouTube videos. Mp3s. A concert recorded in 1983 (that doesn’t sound like it’s a dub of a dub)

It’s like the second-generation mods took ten years to jump onto the web revolution and start to use media sharing apps.

Which is understandable, since we’ve long been programmed to take our obsessions slowly: when I was a teenager, a new single from a British band could mean sending off a letter and a postal order to a shop across the Atlantic. From purchasing decision to delivery, it could take three to five weeks!

If I wanted to “build a conversation” with my favourite band, I either joined the fan club and wrote to the quarterly newsletter, or wrote off to the record label and hoped the snot nosed school leaver in the mail room felt inclined to pass my scrawlings along.

We’ve come a long way, baby.

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My first impressions of retail architecture


When I was a kid, I lived overseas. My exposure to the marketplace was at the street and store level: in Milan and Hong Kong, the majority of retail stores fronted on a street.

In Hong Kong, there were very few malls, aside from China Products, a fantastic bazaar for consumer goods made in the PRC, and the mall found alongside the Kowloon cruise ship terminal.

Which is why one particular scene from the Blues Brothers left an impression: the car chase through the mall.

As Elwood and Jake Blues careened through the suburban indoor mall, all that ran through my head was: “all those stores, and indoors as well?”

“Disco pants and haircuts!”

“New Oldsmobiles are in early this year!”

Twenty seven years after their adventure, the Dixie Square Mall in suburban Chicago remains empty. And for some reason, even in Canada, people prefer pedestrian malls with outdoor areas.

Well, except in February, when it’s cold.

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Never Mind The Bollocks – Here’s Your Tote Bag


Thirty years of teenage angst. Thirty years of rage. Thirty years of commercial manipulation.

It’s been thirty years since the Sex Pistols desecrated “God Save the Queen” – for the good of music and to add to the arsenal of expression available to citizens overlooked or oppressed by their government.

It’s a pity that a large part of the punk rock identity has been appropriated. Not just by large corporations peddling Never Mind The Bollocks tshirts or using London Calling in mobile phone ads, but by snot-nosed suburban kids with no real idea of the severe social, political and economic dislocation that prodded punk rock into existence.

Now, I don’t mean that punk rock MUST be reserved for the dis-associated sallow-skinned British youth. Punk has a mutli-cultural (and multi-generational) appeal and a highly personal relevance.

Instead, I am obsessed with the appropriation of punk imagery by the customers of mainstream marketers. My kids like a Canadian retail chain called West 49. There, they can find studded belts, skate decks, DC shoes, plaid pants, and $100 Billabong hoodies. And all these things sell very well.

But that sort of behaviour has to be expected. These retailers are serving the market.

But what is wrong with the GD kids? Why are $80 ballet flat Vans with death’s head appliques selling so well? Why does the young woman boarding that suburban bus have a “punk rock” tote bag? Why can kids pick up temporary hair colour in purple, yellow, green and orange?

DIY punk seems to be dead, at least in middle-class Ottawa. Is this the result of increased brand awareness among children?

Do kids now look for “punk” brand attributes? Are they looking for their rebellion, their outrage and a radicalisation of their family, neighbourhood, city or society in a well-designed box?

As we keep pushing youth and children to identify with brands, with products or with sentiments, are we undermining their ability to express themselves?

Are our marketing dollars making brand attributes so prevalent and so culturally predominant that it takes a truly dissociative individual to build a truly independent identity as a punk?

Is it even possible to buy white Chuck Taylors to colour and “bedazzle” with spikes and pins?

To quote Hot Topic Is Not Punk Rock by MC Lars:

“…Hot Topic uses contrived identification with youth sub-cultures to manufacture an antiauthoritarian identity and make millions.

That $8 you paid for the Mudvayne poster would be better spent used for seeing your brother’s friend’s band.

DIY ethics are punk rock! Starting your own label is punk rock! GG Allin was punk rock!

But when a crass corporate vulture feeds on mass consumer culture, then spending Mommy’s money is not punk rock!

[Tags] punk rock, Sex Pistols, brand, brand attribute, self expression [/tags]

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Why would a flack push a bad interview with Sigur Ros?


A really meta-meta-meta moment: Luke Burbank, one of the hosts of NPR’s Bryant Park, really felt that an interview with Sigur Ros, the gifted but notoriously distant band from Iceland, went badly. Very badly.

That’s because it did. It was painful. Why would Burbank have booked the band? Because a public relations hack called him up and suggested it. That’s right – this train wreck was recommended to him.

Maybe Burbank just didn’t prep well enough. I’m a suburban dad from Canada, and I knew Sigur Ros were a hard interview. Just take a look at this excerpt from an interview in the Guardian – from 2005:

“…On their astounding new album, Takk … , titles are back and most of the lyrics are in Icelandic. This spirit of glasnost also animates their interviews, which were once a barren tundra of single-word answers. In 2001, one journalist came away with just three usable quotes, one of which was “Yeah, yeah”. They’ll still admit that, given the choice, they would never talk to the press. “It would be nice, yes, if that was possible,” says guitarist and keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson. “That’s something I used to talk about, but I’m getting older and,” he laughs, “weaker. I used to be really sceptical about these things and not really trust anybody.”

Or maybe the flack had recently seen them give good interviews. The evidence seems overwhelmingly negative. They are not an “up with people” band.

As part of his process of repentance and healing, Burbank then brought in a music journalist to help him evaluate and dissect what went wrong with his earlier interview with the band.

It’s clear that the original interview did not make good radio. Jancee, the journalist, is blunt in her assessment of the interview and offers some brief insight into the process of interviewing musicians (like the suggestion, late in the video, that a sock puppet could interview David Lee Roth). Still, some of her commentary is amusing:

“I really do zero in on the drummer. Look at his yearning expression, it’s saying “ask me a question. I’ll answer it. I’m friendly. Over here!” … And really, the other band mates, they really will be puzzled, then they’ll be upset and then they’ll kind of jump in, usually, after a while.”

Jake McKee pointed to this NPR piece and held it up as an example of “turning that frown upside down.” When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Take the critical energy being directed at you, and turn it into a learning experience.

I agree that this is an interesting way to respond to criticism and defuse the situation. He was even-handed in his assessment of his own performance, as well as that of the band. Unfortunately, I found the technique just a little too coy: running a display-in-display critique of his own interview, with the help of a colour commentator.

All that was missing was the Madden Telestrator.

****Added feature: one commenter on the NPR blog suggested Tom Sndyer’s 1980 interview with Johnny Rotten as far worse. I don’t know if I can agree: at least Rotten was engaged and animated.

[tags] NPR, Bryant Park, Sigur Ros, interview techniques [/tags]

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How wire rims bridged gaps in the market


Spinners or wire rims? It seems that spinners are winning the fashion wars, even in suburban Ottawa. Wire rims are back where they always belonged: on antique British roadsters and your grandfather’s Cadillac.

Over the past fifteen years, Dayton Wire Wheels, a premier manufacturer of wire rims, has profited from the growing popularity of their custom wheels among rappers and urban auto customizers.

This success built on an already sizable and reliable fan base among the custom lowriders popular on the west coast of the United States. Not to mention their century-old business with luxury customers.

Other brands have found themselves stranded and abandoned by their traditional clientèle after following urban fashions too closely (see Tommy Hilfiger): why not this company?

How did Dayton avoid the familiar cycle of boom and bust common to most fashionable accessories?

A recent feature in Cleveland Scene doesn’t offer many hints, other than noting a continuing loyalty from customers interested in bespoke wheels and custom rides:

“…Dayton’s factory wouldn’t soon join the other hollowed-out plants that dot the city. The company has managed to maintain its original high-end customers, Guilfoyle says. And it’s hoping to capitalize on the inner city’s new interest in Harley-Davidsons. Besides, they still have their loyal vatos in East L.A.

“Dayton is the wire wheel of status,” says Lowrider‘s Jeff Rick. “And it can’t be a lowrider without a wire wheel. I don’t see that going anywhere.”

Part of Dayton’s secret was diversifying their markets. Instead of relying on unprecedented success found through easy cross-promotion opportunities with rappers like Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, they sought out new markets for their custom rims.

Markets unlikely to rise and fall with the fortunes of urban music: playing upon the nostalgia of boomers picking up the “retro” Ford Thunderbird and P.T. Cruiser. Oh, and Harley Davidson buyers. And BMW lovers. And people obsessed with spending more time with their Jaguar mechanic than their spouse.

Dayton has always served niche markets, customers interested in customizing their individual automobiles and motorcycles – whether they were built in Detroit, England, Italy or Japan, or built by hand or by a robot.

It seems that the arrival of a new market segment – while exciting and flashy – did not distract the company from its overall long-term strategy.

They continued to serve clients interested in paying top dollar to personalize and customize their “ride.”

(They even have a blog for their street rod project)

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William Gibson – pimping in Second Life


William Gibson’s getting ready to release a new novel, and his publisher has some innovative ideas to promote Spook Country. As the Penguin Blog tells us, they’ve prepared a range of activities in Second Life – making an apt link to the ideas first floated in Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer.

“…we’re screening his fine and strange movie No Maps for These Territories; there’s a competition to design an avatar for the man himself; we’re giving away shipping containers packed with Gibson goodies and at the beginning of August, William Gibson himself will be coming into Second Life to read from Spook Country and answer questions…”

Tom Nissley interviews the famed and farsighted author on the Amazon blog: Have you visited Second Life at all? I know that you’re doing some promotions for the book there.

Gibson: I’m going to do something there, and it’ll pretty much be the first time I’ve been there since I did go and check it out last winter. It was a strange experience. Did they treat you as a god there?

Gibson: Well, you know I didn’t go as myself. I went as the guy that I cooked up when I signed up, so nobody knew it was me. And actually it was like a cross between being in some suburban shopping mall on the outskirts of Edmonton in the middle of winter and the worst day you ever spent in high school. [laughter] Yeah, I have to say I’ve visited the outskirts and it frightens me.

Gibson: It’s deserted. It seems like functionally it has to be deserted. If it’s not deserted it crashes. So there’s all this empty, empty architecture. There’s whole cities where there’s only one other person and they don’t even want to get close to you. And when you do succeed in finding a group of other avatars, people aren’t very nice. They’re meaner than they are–it’s like people are in their cars.

Penguin’s Jeremy Ettinghausen offered UKSFbooknews greater detail on Gibson’s initial foray into Second Life:

“…”We visited one of the hardcore dystopian cyberpunk sims and had a wander around. A group of cosplayers were sitting chatting on benches and when they saw William Gibson (obviously not appearing under his own name) a few catcalls rang out.

He was, I think, both surprised and disturbed by this – I think surprised by the mocking and disturbed that in a virtual world where anonymity is prized and the usual laws of physics do not apply, appearance still seemed to be an issue for residents.”

[tags] Second Life, William Gibson, Neuromancer, book promotion, author tour[/tags]

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Predicting behaviour by consumers and panicked citizens


Take one sophisticated computer model capable of predicting individual behaviour in a variety of urban settings. Add a large consumer or retail corporation interested in maximizing their in-store marketing efforts.

You can just predict the co-opting of an extremely sophisticated urban planning tool.

Not that this scenario has happened yet. Paul Torrens, an assistant professor at Arizona State University, has received a multi-year National Science Foundation grant to:

“…develop a reusable and behaviorally founded computer model of pedestrian movement and crowd behavior amid dense urban environments, to serve as a test-bed for experimentation,” says Torrens. “The idea is to use the model to test hypotheses, real-world plans and strategies that are not very easy, or are impossible to test in practice.” (ASU news release)

Once the academics have done all the heavy lifting, I can easily see commercial applications:

  • modeling traffic flows at trade shows
  • evaluating the efficiency of urban and suburban guerrilla marketing campaigns
  • testing category placement at grocery stores
  • maximizing the placement of shopping centre info booths
  • calculating the maximum tolerable distance between airport departure gates

Pruned has suggested some other applications:

  • simulate how a crowd flees from a burning car toward a single evacuation point;
  • see how the existing urban grid facilitate or does not facilitate mass evacuation prior to a hurricane landfall or in the event of dirty bomb detonation; or
  • design a mall which can compel customers to shop to the point of bankruptcy, to walk obliviously for miles and miles and miles, endlessly to the point of physical exhaustion and even death.

In practical terms, I wonder how much of this new modeling the folks at Disney theme parks will review and say “knew that. knew that. that’s not a surprise!”

Personally, I would like to see the results from one of the professor’s other projects:

Modeling Time, Space, and Behavior: Combining ABM & GIS to Create Typologies of Playgroup Dynamics in Preschool Children

pointer from CityofSound

[tags] traffic flow, urban design, patterning, shopping habits [/tags]

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You Can’t Go Home Again – agency edition


In North America, agencies can disappear quickly. No matter the reason for their closure, a similar pattern is followed:

  • booze, pens and paper are liberated
  • agency name is retired, reassigned or merged within the umbrella ownership group
  • creative and uncreative employees drift with the wind and the latest multi-million dollar review
  • leased fax, photocopier and computers are returned
  • even the cubicles are shipped back to some suburban warehouse
  • after months of searching, the landlord finds a new tenant
  • interior walls, plugs and lights are moved to meet the needs of the new tenant

The only things left behind are toilets, elevators and attractive brick walls.

That’s the price of working in a world dominated by curtain-walled buildings.

In the Old World, an old agency office can live on. Noisy Decent Graphics’ Ben describes his visit to a hair stylists’ – and was once a pharma advertising shop:

“…Through that door, top left used to be the photocopier and where the nail varnish type stuff is used to sit the fax machine.

It was very odd going back. So many memories, so many visual memories smashed by CH’s architect. The place looks really nice, by the way.”

There’s a quote in Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again that applies to both commercial office properties and advertisers:

“… she had slept with everybody. . . but she has never been promiscuous …”

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RatFest! Co-locating brands doesn’t pay off for Yum! Brands


Kentucky Fried Chicken tries crisis responseLooks like Yum Brands is tackling the latest health crisis in its portfolio a little more seriously. First there was the spinach scare at Taco Bell, now a scurry of rats at a KFC/Taco Bell in Manhattan.

KFC has a direct link to information on the situation in New York on its main web page. Below that, there’s a link to a video from Yum! Brands President Emil Brolick, and buried somewhere in the site is a link to a video from KFC President Gregg Dedrick.

To quote Dedrick: “We believe we have the highest quality hygiene standards at each of our restaurants, and that they are being followed” … well, expect for that one in Greenwich Village.

This is still a traditional crisis response, however. The two videos are the now-standard “executive with an unbuttoned shirt appeared concerned, with very little hand or head movement” variety. At least we’ve moved away from the “authority figure in a sports jacket behind a very serious desk” model. Unfortunately, they both appear to have been filmed outside the executive’s office. (Or, in Dedrick’s case, outside a suburban hotel’s conference room.)

What’s missing is the visual. Viewers on countless television websites, file sharing sites and the ubiquitous YouTube can watch the rat revelry in full glorious colour. You think Dedrick could have flown over to New York to film his video on site – thereby demonstrating action rather than a simple recitation of a text? Or even head on down to the demonstration kitchen at HQ in Louisville?

ON TOP OF THAT – both the videos are embedded in a Flash player. Might as well start off the video with a rolling text that says “we want to appear concerned, but really don’t want to share control of this messaging with anyone at all. Please listen to this and go away. Or maybe navigate over to review our tempting specials for the chicken snacker.”

I may post a draft script for such an on-site video later today.

Judging from the statements, YUM and KFC have thrown the NY franchise holder under the bus in this case. The action plan seems to emphasize ensuring that the area franchisee gets his stores up to standard, and seeks to limit the collateral brand damage to only the NY area.

That distinction, while useful to the corporate folks in Louisville, means very little to actual consumers.

I am a loyal Taco Bell customer, and I STILL haven’t returned to the restaurant chain – even though none of last year’s e.coli contamination took place up at restaurants in Canada. I am picking up my information from traditional and online media, who are more than happy to pass on gross stories like “rat in the kitchen.” (wasn’t that a mid-80s reggae tune?)

Yum! seems to be straddling the technological divide between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And that doesn’t work. The consumer is no longer slow to react, and the impact to the bottom line can be immediate and cumulative. Bad news is no longer a drop in the sea: the ripples go on until a larger wave swamps them.

[tags] KFC, Taco Bell, YUM, Rats in New York, Kentucky Fried Chicken [/tags]

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The mall’s role in American culture


The blogging world is full of niches. Public relations blogs are one tiny niche. Another even smaller grouping is mall bloggers. The leading mall blogs are featured in Retail Traffic this month. Here’s my list:

  • Malls of America is a multimedia blast into the past, with a fond eye for the postcard views of 60’s design and the overhyped promise of technology.
  • DeadMalls popped up on my handheld during a shopping trip to Syracuse. It was of no help in finding hollister, though.
  • the BoxTank – a more considered examination of the role of malls and big box stores in the suburban environment, but seems to be dead
  • Roadside Architecture – an attempt to document all those “did you see that” locations along the highway. Dinosaurs, 50’s bus stops, diners …

That’s blogs about malls, written by fans. As opposed to blogs written for malls, by consultants – like the poor Oakland Mall Blog. A post every quarter that reads like promotional copy, and a contact address that has a different name to that listed under “author.”

Underserved niche: I’m surprised no-one has set up a blog for mall walkers. There’s a consumer market, property nuisance, neighbourhood watch, and liability lawsuit waiting to happen, all in one group.

I also like the “closed for business – abandoned shops/stores” group on flickr.

[tags] mall, retail, shopping [/tags]

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How Halloween benefits from the 1%’ers


A new take on the 1% rule: on Halloween night, the spirit of candy grubbing children is strengthened and invigorated by those homeowners obsessed with decorating their house and frightening small children on Halloween.

Based upon my sampling of traffic flows on the streets of my very anodyne suburban neighbourhood, children are drawn to the houses with the biggest displays, loudest noises and best fog machines.

This 1% of homeowners – the ones that spend hundreds of dollars on decorations – fuel participation in Halloween festivities and heighten the sense of participation and community among Trick-or-Treaters.

The sample, I feel, is quite accurate: my neighbourhood is filled with nearly identical streets lined with very similar houses with builder-mandated colour schemes.

Our neighbours are a heterogeneous lot, with some fierce believers in Halloween and some true agnostics (however paradoxical the term). This means that some streets are evenly spaced with lightly decorated houses, and some streets have two or three extravagantly decorated houses randomly located among the others.

Tonight, the chatter of excited children bounced all along the more heavily decorated roads: the dedication of that 1% of true Halloween fanatics fuelled excitement and pariticipation among the younger set.

On the other roads, homeowners peeked from behind cat’s eye appliques layered on living room windows, looking for marauding gangs of Snow Whites, Avril Lavignes, Tiggers and Freddy Kreugers, wondering whether they would be eating ketchup-flavoured sample bags of potato chips for weeks to come.

It’s true – a community is energized by the over-the-top actions of its most fervent participants.

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“Girls on Film” and your nosy neighbours


An exercise in difficult community relations: when your suburban cul-de-sac becomes a shooting location for porn movies, and how your neighbours react. In the LA Times.

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Garden State: How retail analysts look into their crystal ball


Wonder how retail analysts keep track of their companies? Other than quarterly financials, calls from the friendly IR department, the occasional visit to CEO and reading the weekly circulars? They try to visit retail locations as inconspicuously as possible. The Garden State Plaza in Paramus, N.J. is a favourite for NY- based analysts looking for a quick dip in the market.

    “… Thomas D. Lennox, the head of investor relations at Abercrombie & Fitch, jokes that on any given Friday afternoon “you will find more retail analysts at Garden State Plaza than on Wall Street and Midtown Manhattan combined.”

    … Retailing analysts and fund managers say they never base judgments – particularly recommendations to buy or sell a stock – on observations from a single mall. In interviews, half a dozen analysts said they visited at least three malls a month. But nearly all conceded that they returned, again and again, to Garden State Plaza, about a 20-minute drive from Midtown, making it perhaps the single most influential mall in the country.”(NYT)

How do these analysts, seeking partial anonymity while strolling through the mall in “suburban dad” clothes, judge the success or failure of holiday marketing campaigns? How do they “develop” the qualitative data for their reports?

    “…In the world of retailing analysis, even the size of the sale sign has meaning, conveying what [Harris Nesbitt retail analyst John D. Morris] calls “levels of desperation.” A large, bright sign positioned prominently outside the store in the mall’s main corridor is “very desperate,” whereas a small, unobtrusive sign, visible through a display window, conveys confidence.”

Really, the analysts don’t wield any specialist knowledge on the shop floor. The impressions they form are based on pricing, inventory and customer care signals that any experienced shopper can recognize.

    “… the peculiar craft of retailing analysis, in which a store’s strength is measured through dozens of tiny, seemingly imperceptible signs, ranging from the size of a 50-percent-off sale poster (revealing how desperate a store is to clear out merchandise) to the number of unfolded shirts on the sales floor (indicating a store, perhaps fearing poor holiday sales, has cut back on employment and is understaffed).”(NYT)

There are weaknesses in relying on the Garden State Plaza, which Retail Traffic called “the patriarch of New Jersey’s shopping centers.” Thankfully, the NYT acknowledge’s the mall unusually high average family income and other factors.


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Someone switched to decaf at Pharma Exec


Looks like there’s some anger management issues over at Pharma Exec magazine. Either that, or the junior editor writing the headlines is working through his 30 day layoff notice. “Bustin’ a CAP” is just one headline. Sure, it’s about likely problems with Medicare Part B’s Competitive Acquisitions Program, but I have to wonder who’s channelling some white suburban punk rage – a la Michael Bolton.

Just like the headline from the cover of the mag: “Soldiering On: Valeant Pharmaceuticals has stopped the bleeding. Can the specialty company dress the wounds?”


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7-11: not just a hangout for K-Fed and dealers anymore


7-11 is moving back into the Manhattan market, and New York magazine “spoke with CEO James Keyes and his PR director-chaperone, Margaret Chabris” about the chain’s strategy.

Imagine the setting: You’re a multinational convenience chain, establishing a beachhead in a market dominated by local bodegas and immigrant-owned groceries. You’re trying to have a light-hearted, but on message, conversation with a magazine aimed squarely at the sort of NY’er who might chafe from 7-11 driving out their favourite Korean grocery. On top of it all, the PR director is in the room.

    Q: 7-Eleven strikes some urbanites as hopelessly suburban. Is your brand hip?

    Keyes: We believe 7-Eleven is the ultimate hip. We tuned in a few years ago, and JasonIm sorry, JustinTimberlake is shooting a video in a 7-Eleven parking lot. We were really pleased …

    Q: Have you taken into account New Yorkers need for condoms?

    Heh-heh. Uhhhhh . . .

    Chabris: Hes blushing. Lets say the gross is really in fresh foods.

Actually, I think the gross will be in the manga and DVDs you’ll find customers will be requesting. That’s the reason the bodegas and groceries scrape along: they will cater to the quirks, habits and perversions of their regular customers. That sort of “focus on the customer” may prove difficult for a publicly traded behemoth.

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Experiential marketers have a brand image problem


They have a difficult job. Responding to newspaper ads or flyers on telephone poles, these poorly-paid workers show up at non-descript offices in suburban office parks, or even meet for work at a designated street corner. Their ostensible “bosses” have no real empathy for them, nor do they have any job security.

Their job? To work street corners, conventions and malls, raising awareness of their brand among a defined groups of consumers, suggesting ideas and helping sketch out benefits to convert reluctant or inhibited prospects into buying customers.

Sometimes a costume helps. Other times – free samples.

But there’s a hitch in this narrative. I’m talking about the members of the Canadian National Coalition of Experiential Women.

And they’re sex trade workers.

Better watch out – looks like there’s one marketing buzzword that’s going to lose its lustre.

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When the suburbs and naturists collide


Just noticed something shocking while wandering through Canadian Tire today: the Coleman 15′ 6″ Journey Canoe has cup holders – lots of them. The ad copy may try to mask this very suburban feature (my minivan has 8 cupholders) by calling them “rod and cup holders,” but let’s get real. Any fisherman worth his/her salt will own a fishing boat with electric trolling motor and built-in beer – I MEAN FISH – cooler.

Oh – and if you’re wondering why I linked to a Sam’s Club site for a Canadian-made canoe, it’s because the Canadian Tire site doesn’t do a very good job of actually selling the canoe – it’s more like an upload of an Excel description with a photo.

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Once again: WHY PULL ADS?


GM’s decided to pull their advertising from the LA Times “for the foreseeable future,” in part as a reaction to a harsh column Wednesday about poor management at the stumbling automaker.

I wonder if LA-area GM dealers have anything to say about this? Kinda hard to move Hummers, Suburbans and the new Equinox out the door when gas is nearly $3 a gallon and you have no branding support.

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Best Buy: where the chicks aren’t


Like many businesses, electronics giant Best Buy has realized that some customers deserve to be fired – and if not fired, then ignored. The company’s new marketing strategy emphasizes catering to their five best customers. Drawing upon 18 months of purchasing data drawn from a new personal rewards program and a greater emphasis on data mining throughout the company, this “customer centricity” philosophy targets:

    Barry the affluent professional who wants the best and demands excellent service.

    Buzz the younger male who wants the latest gizmos and entertainment.
    Ray the family man and practical adopter of new technology.
    Jill the suburban mom who wants gear that enriches her kids’ lives.
    Small-business customers (who have no nickname).

Wait a minute! So women are neither affluent, young, or adopters? What exactly does their data reveal? That women only come into the store when the Sandra Bullock DVDs go on sale?

And those nicknames seem awfully familiar – in an evening sitcom sort of way. Click on the links to see what I mean.

Promo‘s got more information on their plans.

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Liquoring up those Dangerous Housewives


Kahlua, by taking a risk buying ad time during ABC’s unproven Dangerous Housewives, seems to have gotten in on the ground floor of a growing marketing phenomenon.

Apparently, marketers are now questioning their demographic stereotypes about suburban moms, fevered in the realization that the suburbs may in fact be seeded with heavy drinking, fast living and loosely clothed mamas.

    “It’s the natural evolution of Generation X,” says marketing expert Ann Fishman, president of Generational Targeted Marketing. “They are able to go from Sex and the City to married in the suburbs very easily. . . . The biggest mistake (marketers) could make is to think that today’s suburban housewife is a younger version of yesterday’s suburban housewife.” (USA Today)

The apparent difference? Today’s suburban housewife is far more willing to throw the mad money down for an expensive fleece vest, store label wood-fired goat cheese pizza, a pair of Manolo Blahniks, or socially ambitious liqueurs. It’s not all about the easy convenience of the Swiffer, Oreck 2000 or the UPS guy.

To me, it was obvious that Generation X was slowing down and moving to the ‘burbs when the Bob and Jack radio formats became popular. When David Byrne, the English Beat and Joe Jackson start showing up during drive time, you know Generation X is spending more time in the van.

Actually, I think you’d find that yesteryear’s suburban mom was equally conniving, duplicitous and lusty: key parties are just one uncomfortable reminder of how your parents used to spend their Saturday night.

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Canada: how to run a political campaign on the cheap


The Prime Minister’s gone and done it. Canada’s going to have an election on June 28. Somehow, he and his fellow politicians will reach out to nearly 30 million Canadians spread across the second largest country in the world – and only spend about $40 million.

Sure, that doesn’t count the costs of the actual election mechanics, or the costs to be tallied up by the media. Did you know a Canadian network has borrowed one of ABC’s now-ubiquitous wired buses? (It actually broke down yesterday. On the first day of the election.) Even CPAC, the public access politics channel, has a bus.

Several outlets are trying out blogs, including the CBC (it reads like a college road trip journal). The Globe and Mail is promising to have reporter’s blogs. (When? The campaign’s into its second day)

In the interests of free and open democracy, I’ve prepared some helpful hints for those thrifty Canadian politicians looking to save a few dollars on the campaign trail:

  • Get all the staff on one of those “friends and family” phone plans
  • Public access programming – it’s where you find the really committed voter
  • Take advantage of cross promotion – lawn signs can also advertise driveway resealing or lawn care companies
  • Save on focus groups and polling: hang around the Tim Horton’s on Saturday morning (or the mall food court, for the youth demo)
  • Integrated marketing – deliver take-out menus with outreach material
  • Campaign plane? I hear WestJet/EasyJet/JetBlue hit ALL the vote-rich suburban areas
  • Media plane too expensive? Try hotel minibar pricing on the booze
  • Meals too costly? Give the candidate’s son the “important job” of cleaning out the free breakfast bar when the team checks out of the Holiday Inn Express
  • Gas prices too high? Get the assistant driving the media van to distract the service station attendant after you fuel up the campaign bus – then make a break for it!
  • Update the campaign website and blog on the road by phishing WiFi hot spots. (A latte a day keeps your ISP bill away!)

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  • PoMo Suburbia: slide the minivan beside the loading dock


    Want that SoHo post-industrial feel, but just don’t want to go to the bother of moving to NYC? Are you craving some exposed brick, metal sheathing and iron girderwork, but still want to be close to the new Sam’s Club? Don’t want to have to walk past a wino to pick up your latte?

    loftdevelopment.jpgWell, the Iron Works Lofts may be for you. Too bad they’re in a suburban development thirty minutes outside Denver. As the architects tell us: “Iron Works Lofts brings the excitement, flexibility and vitality of contemporary urban loft living into a single family detached home context. ”

    Mmmm. Kay.

    Writing in Metropolis, Karrie Jacobs discusses how abruptly the idealized world of design can meet the realities of commercial development. Lofts have traditionally represented the repurposing of a space, the gradual revitalization of a building and a neighbourhood. These social and cultural values can’t really be reflected in new suburban development – which leaves a disquieting feeling when you see buildings like these in such a idiosyncratic setting.

    Recently I caught up with Dean Thedos, self-described “head of crazy-idea development” for Cornerstone Homes. He’s the brains behind Ironworks Lofts. He says the goal was to make a less “exclusionary” version of the urban loft. The loft, he says, “has been in locations that have been fairly inhospitable except to a small segment of the population.” He’s talking about cities.

    “It’s hard to go shopping for groceries,” Thedos argues. “It’s hard to have friends visit and park their cars. You make a lot of trade-offs. Why can’t we evolve this into a form that’s more accessible? Let’s morph it into something that anybody who wants to can live in and not have to trade off their garage and fenceable yard in a location where shopping is proximate and there are multiple bedrooms for children.” …

    The lesson here is that when you argue for stylistic change and that change eventually comes, it turns out that style is beside the point. The New Urbanists, for example, used bungalow style to sell their antisprawl principles. As a result the bungalow has become popular among conventional developers, who somehow missed the part about principle. Likewise, as commercial builders embrace a loft aesthetic, the fact that lofts were a way of reviving disused urban neighborhoods falls by the wayside. So here’s a tip from the Uncool Hunter’s Manual: the point where style is pried loose from any semblance of meaning is a good place to seek out the uncool.

    And you know this is all the fault of thirtysomething. All those ferns, exposed ducts and brick walls.

    (look here for more Karrie Jacobs articles on urban design)

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    Now THAT’s a magic eight ball


    Two Democratic political consultants and a UCLA psychiatry prof have joined forces to fund a project exploring how the brain reacts to the stimuli from political ads. (NYT, Reg. req.)

    How have they measured the reactions of their eleven test subjects so far? With an M.R.I. machine!

    In the experiment … , researchers exposed [a subject] to photographs of the presidential candidates, commercials for President Bush and John Kerry, and other video images, including the “Daisy” commercial from 1964. In that advertisement, promoting Lyndon B. Johnson against Barry Goldwater, images of a girl picking petals from a daisy were replaced by images of a nuclear explosion …

    “Brain imaging offers a fantastic opportunity to study how people respond to political information,” said Jonathan D. Cohen, director of the Center for the Study of Brain, Mind and Behavior at Princeton. “But the results of such studies are often complex, and it is important to resist the temptation to read into them what we may wish to believe, before our conclusions have been adequately tested.”

    The NYT notes that others have looked into this area, including neuromarketers. Read Montague, the director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory at the Baylor College of Medicine, has conducted similar research.

    ”I keep joking that I could do this Gucci shoes study, where I’d show people shoes I think are beautiful, and see whether women like them,” says Elizabeth Phelps, a professor of psychology at New York University. ”And I’ll see activity in the brain. I definitely will. But it’s not like I’ve found ‘the shoe center of the brain.”’

    Or the left-leaning/suburban mom/suv-owning/tough on crime center of the brain either.

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    Shopping malls – delivery systems for lipstick


    Victor Gruen was the designer of the first modern enclosed shopping mall, Southdale, outside Minneapolis (the original news release can be found here). Malcolm Gladwell has profiled the architect and his impact on North American consumer culture in the most recent New Yorker.

    Fifty years ago, Victor Gruen designed a fully enclosed, introverted, multitiered, double-anchor-tenant shopping complex with a garden court under a skylightand today virtually every regional shopping center in America is a fully enclosed, introverted, multitiered, double-anchor-tenant complex with a garden court under a skylight. Victor Gruen didnt design a building; he designed an archetype.

    I know I’ve been a little mall-centric this week. The places just fascinate me – espcially since I live a stereotypical suburban life, and must recount my weekend activities by listing my visits to the stores, theatres and services only found in nearby malls.

    … well-run department stores are the engines of malls. They have powerful brand names, advertise heavily, and carry extensive cosmetics lines (shopping malls are, at bottom, delivery systems for lipstick)all of which generate enormous shopping traffic. The point of a mallthe reason so many stores are clustered together in one buildingis to allow smaller, less powerful retailers to share in that traffic. A shopping center is an exercise in coperative capitalism. It is considered successful (and the mall owner makes the most money) when the maximum number of department-store customers are lured into the mall.

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    Remembering Late Twentieth Century Satire


    Two recent reviews of long-treasured magazines prompted this little mini-reminiscence. I know I’m overlooking a lot.

    Once upon a time, the world was a gentler and kindler place. You had search hard and long for irony, satire and sarcasm in popular culture in North America. Sure, Lenny Bruce, Newhart, Cavett, Carlin and the Smothers Brothers were working clubs and skating a fine line of morality on TV, but you were more likely to see Jack Hanna or Senor Wences talking to Ed or Johnny most nights.

    National Lampoon helped crack the veneer of respectablity. Like Carlin, they brought a critical eye to the details and conventions of that defined our everyday suburban life. Slate’s taken a look at a re-issue of a book that made us re-examine our own surroundings – the familiar cast of nerds, dweebs, losers, geeks, sluts, bikers and teacher’s pets we all knew intimately from school – National Lampoon’s 1964 High School Yearbook

    National Lampoon’s work continues to resonate in popular culture today. Doug Kenney, one of the Yearbook‘s authors, helped write Animal House as well as Caddyshack. P.J. O’Rourke was another author.

    Despite this ground-breaking work, it would be years before the TV networks would reluctantly welcome the caustic wit, mildly offensive skits and satirical observations of everymen like David Letterman – and then only late at night.

    In 1986, as Folio reminds us, Spy magazine was launched. Gradon Carter and Kurt Andersen helped rip open the pastel pink underbelly of the egomaniacal 80s – with its attendant power suits, pink suspenders, money clips, flashy cars and pretentious society gatherings. Spy’s irreverent approach to the affairs, parties and peccadillos of businessmen, celebrities and policiticans echoed many of the ideas first published by Britain’s Private Eye and Punch magazines – but in a louder, more aggressive and more colourful manner.

    Spy’s influence can be seen everywhere from The New York Times itself (which adopted its disembodied celebrity heads) to the snide asides that pop up in Entertainment Weekly and The New York Observer.

    Maybe the loudest incarnation of this influence was E!’s Talk Soup, where hosts like Greg Kinnear and John Henson distilled a day’s worth of talk show freaks, soap opera antics and news oddities into a soundbite and video clip potpourri – narrated with more than a touch of sarcasm.

    But has the world turned on its head? Sarcasm, irony and ennui are now so common-place that John Edwards announced his presidential run on The Daily Show.

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